3 Essential Ingredients of a Meaningful Conversation
What I remember most about being home from college for the holidays is deep, meaningful conversations with people. My mom was the master of this art. One year I had a traumatic experience with a man – the kind that shapes you forever – and when I arrived home, I was sad and frightened. Even though I didn’t say anything at first, Mom, of course, picked up on that; I can still see us in the laundry room folding clothes, crying together and talking for hours. I credit my mom with the renewed sense of hope and courage with which I went back to college that January.
However, it seems that many people are concerned that we are no longer conversing with each other – anywhere. In the article Now that everyone is connected, is this the death of conversation? Simon Jenkins discusses this in great detail. He quotes Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author of Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other.
“We have confused connection with conversation – the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship.”
I am not convinced that conversation is dead, at least in my world. But I see the need for a refresher on how to have a conversation that is meaningful; I want to encourage us all to have those conversations now before we forget how. Therefore, reflecting on meaningful conversations I’ve had over the years, I have attempted to put together a recipe – one that can be used in any situation whether at home or at the office. I’ve come up with three ingredients for that recipe, but I’d love to hear from you if you know of others. My three ingredients are the inquiry, implicit communication, and humor.
I tend to see the glass half full. When in conversation, I expect the other person is well-intentioned even if the conversation is difficult. Sometimes, I am disappointed, but, for example, I prefer to agree to disagree rather than assume people are jerks if they have a different opinion. This perspective also allows me to be curious and ask questions. I’ve learned a lot about life and people by being curious and I’ve found that people appreciate being asked about their ideas and experiences.
“You can cross huge divides when you engage in dialogue or conversation from a position of inquiry, and if you do that from an appreciative stance, it means your inquiry is looking for what to appreciate or value in that other person’s story.”
Appreciative inquiry is a term used to describe a specific process of communication that has had tremendous success, particularly in areas of strife between different cultures. To Robyn Stratton-Berkessel, it is a way of life. Even without knowing the exact process, the idea of appreciative inquiry is powerful and will result in a more meaningful conversation. To apply it, we need to remain respectful and hopeful, with the courage or conviction to keep the conversation going. We must remain open to each other with a desire to learn and grow. And we must then ask meaningful questions rather than superficial ones that merely fill the silent spaces.
In spite of the power of inquiry to create a meaningful discussion, often it is what is unsaid that matters most. We all know the feeling of the “elephant in the room.” If we deny what is unsaid but known, we deny the opportunity for a deeper relationship. We evade the truth and cannot share from the heart, talking around what is important rather than dealing with it.
Being direct in conversation is one way to deal with the unsaid. You can bring it up – get it out in the open. However, it is also possible to accept that what you know and feel in your heart is true, have empathy for that situation, and not address it head-on. Simply sitting quietly in the same room with the bereaved may mean more than a discussion about loss. Trust your gut.
“From equivocation to consideration, from persuasion to in-group consolidation, from the threat to thrall, implicit communication plays an important role not only in diplomacy but in everyday communication. We have a choice either to master the unsaid or to be mastered by it.Biljana Scott, in article in The Guardian about poetry, politics and what is unsaid being powerful.
My dad used to love to play Devil’s Advocate at the dinner table just to get a rise out of us kids. That certainly helped me to shape my own views about life, but it wasn’t always fun. Sometimes we got our feelings hurt. The answer was to find something to laugh about. My dad always knew when to do that. Today, when I have a difficult discussion with a family member, I look for the opportunity to inject humor to create a space for us to find a way to leave the conflict and ease into a better place, even if only temporarily.
In an excellent overview of the power of humor, writer Nichole Force says,
“Among other things, laughter has been shown to reduce stress, boost the immune system and enhance brain chemistry through the release of serotonin and endorphins.”
When in an intense discussion, humor can take the intensity down a notch because of its effect on the brain. Force also describes how humor has gotten people through such horrible times as the Holocaust.
According to the comedian, Jessica Halem, perhaps the best reason to use humor in conversations is this,
“Laughter physically loosens you up to receive information or to connect with other people,”
Read Halem’s guide on how to make someone laugh and be prepared for your next discussion.
There is a lot to be gained by being in conversation with people, and even more, if we stay fully engaged enough to have meaningful conversations. To do this, we must remember to be inquisitive, pay attention to implicit communication, and find something to laugh about. What else have you found to be important? Let’s keep talking to each other in 2014 and beyond.
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